In Yahshua's day, Jericho was a city of priests, the home of many Sadducees. These Sadducee priests had to remain ceremonially clean for their Temple duties; they had many restrictions to prevent becoming unclean, such as being forbidden from touching a dead (or nearly-dead) body (which explains the priest's behavior in the parable of the Good Samaritan), and being forbidden from touching Roman money since it had images on it.
Nevertheless, needing to deal with Roman money but being unable to handle it personally, these priests hired money-handlers who would collect Roman money from the tax payers and then convert it to Jewish money which the Sadducees could handle.
These tax-collectors, constantly handling Roman coinage, were therefore constantly unclean, and therefore could not attend Temple, or Synagogue, or hug friends/family, or shake hands with people they met on the street, or be with their wives (unless she too were unclean). They inherited the nickname of "Sinner", or "publican". They were looked down on, because they were always "unclean". They may have been decent, honest, God-fearing people, but because of their role in society, they were social outcasts.
In Jericho, there was one of these guys, named Zakkai (meaning "clean" or "pure" in Hebrew, short for Zachariah, and rendered in English via the Greek and Latin intermediates as "Zacchaeus"). We read of his story in Luke 19.
Zakkai apparently dealt honestly in his business affairs, as his later statement, "If I have defrauded anyone...", indicates. He apparently had a generous heart, as his later pledge to give half of his possessions to the poor indicates. He was a man of short stature, which was one reason he climbed a tree to see Yahshua as Yahshua passed by.
But why climb a tree? Why couldn't Zakkai just get in front of the crowd in order to see the passing Yahshua? Simply because if he got too close to the average Jew, that person would recoil in horror and scream at him, "Don't touch me! You're unclean! Get away!" Climbing a tree thus served a two-fold purpose; it got him above the crowd where his view would be unobstructed, and it got him out of the crowd where he would not defile anyone.
As Yahshua passed by, he looked up into the tree and saw Zakkai, and told him to come down to be a host to Yahshua's retinue.
This was social anathema. The great rabbi is going to the house of a sinner, an unclean person; the great rabbi is defiling himself. What kind of rabbi is this, to associate with the scum of society?
But Yahshua, perceiving the whispering behind his back, answered:
"Today salvation has come to this house," Jesus told him, "because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost."This must have made the Sadducean priests livid with rage. We, as non-Jews, miss the significance of what Yahshua said. If we knew the text of the Tanakh ("Old Testament"), we too would have understood what an offensive thing Yahshua had just said to the priests.
First, there's the play on words. Jesus' name, Yahshua, means "Yah saves"; he is God's salvation, and today, God's salvation has come to the house of the unclean Zacchaeus. Secondly, Yahshua's reference to the Son of Man and seeking and saving the lost is a reference to Ezekiel 34, and the priests would have heard the message clearly (although it's very vague to us Westerners).
I encourage you to read Ezekiel 34 for yourself, but in paraphrase it says this:
"Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: Woe to you shepherds who only take care of yourselves. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. You trample the grass of the pasture so that my sheep can not eat. You muddy the water so that my sheep can not drink. You leave my sheep unattended on the hills to be eaten by the wolves. I am against you shepherds and will hold you accountable for my flock. I will remove you shepherds, and you will no longer be able to feed yourselves by using my flock as your food. I, YHWH, I myself will seek and save the lost.So in this simple statement:
- Yahshua has declared himself as God, in two different ways (Yah's salvation has come to the house; YHWH will seek and save the lost, which Yahshua is claiming as his role).
- Yahshua has declared Zakkai as being a sheep beloved by God, not a sinner to be cast out of society, which probably was the most validation Zakkai had gotten as a valuable person in years.
- Yahshua has declared the priests to be evil, by oppressing the sheep in order to satisfy their own appetites, and condemned them to losing their position.